New Year, New WFH set up

The optimal home office setup

Working from home is hardly a new phenomenon, but the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely made it an unplanned requirement for many office and knowledge workers. Even as the coronavirus crisis eventually recedes, many employers will have discovered that they don’t need large office buildings, and many employees will have discovered that they don’t need to be in the office every day or spend hours commuting.

In the clinical setting, I have seen and treated many office workers that present with avoidable niggles, strains and pains from make shift home offices for the pandemic that won’t work well for the long term. In addition to having the right equipment, the physical setup — the ergonomics of the workspace — is critical, especially around avoiding repetitive strain injuries that a bad setup can cause.

And employers, take note: Repetitive strain injuries puts you on the hook for workers’ compensation claims and, of course, lost productivity.

A long-term home office should ideally be a separate space in your home that is properly outfitted for work. Do as much of the following as you can to create an effective, safe workspace for the long term. 

A dedicated space

Ideally, you would use a small room that can hold a desk and computer equipment and whose door can be shut for the essential need to separate work life from home life.

Most people don’t have spare space, but many people can convert a guest room into a dual-purpose space: an office most of the time and a guest room when people visit. An enclosed porch, a large laundry room (or, for Europeans, drying room), or even a garden shed can also do the double-duty trick.

If you can’t get a dedicated space you can separate from the rest of your life, try to find a niche space you can use that is out of the rest of the household’s way — and they out of yours — as much as possible.

Proper work height

Any google-able industry standard on desk/table height is based on writing on paper, not using a keyboard and mouse. That’s why keyboard trays pull out from below the work surface and are typically an inch or two lower than the desk or table height. If you have space for a keyboard-and-mouse tray (it should be wide enough for both!), get one.

You know your work surface is at the correct height if, when you sit in a reclined position (ideally 110degrees), tuck your chair in and have your forearms are parallel to the ground, resting easily on the desk.

Proper monitor height

Get a large monitor (maybe two) for your home office — just as you would at the corporate office. I’ve had good luck with 25- to 27-inch monitors from Asus and Acer, but any major brand will offer high-quality monitors. Just avoid the cheapest monitors if you can, since they can lead to eyestrain over prolonged use due to their lower resolution and thus increased fuzziness.

Your monitor should line up so that if you look straight ahead when sitting straight, your eyes are at a height of the top third of the screen. That way, you keep your shoulders level and don’t hunch your back — two easy ways to cause injury.

To get the proper height, you’ll likely need a riser for the monitor — This can be done with a monitor stand (if using a laptop) or a simple ream of paper.

A good chair

There are a lot of average chairs calling themselves 'ergonomic' out there that can get a little overwhelming. For most of us, Dining chairs are used for the home office set up and unfortunately are rarely are at the right height, and they don’t always encourage the needed slightly reclined posture. These have been the staple go-to for the working from home

Learn to become familiar with your chair. Be sure to get one with adjustable height, that can roll, that provides lumbar support for the lower back, and ideally has adjustable back rest tilt, arm height, and lateral arm position. Ensure your arms can transition smoothly onto the desk, removal of arm-rests can allow this proper posture.

Good lighting

It’s very easy to underestimate the effects of your work environment on your ability to work. Lighting is often an area people don’t think about. Ideally, you have sufficient indirect light to illuminate your workspace, so you can easily read papers and see physical objects. Overhead lighting is usually best.

Indirect lighting means lights not in your direct field of view or reflecting off your monitor. For example, an outside window behind or to the side of your desk can create glare on your monitor screen when the sun is shining. Natural light is quite pleasant, but diffuse it with shades or curtains so it doesn’t create glare. I highly recommend the 20:20:20 rule - Every 20 minutes, look 20 metres away for 20 seconds. It is a great reset for the eyes.

Likewise, make sure your monitor’s brightness is not too dim or too bright, both of which can cause eyestrain.“Too dim” and “too bright” are subjective, of course, but a good rule of thumb is that the monitor’s lighting intensity should be just a little brighter than your ambient lighting, and that ambient lighting should be sufficient to read paper documents without additional light.